Many Indians owe their livelihoods to the textile industry. As a demand for textiles grows, enticed by its large pool of low wage labour and bounty of natural resources, more and more international brands are coming to India to meet the demand.
In fact, India’s textile industry, which employs around 15 million people and makes up 14% of India’s industrial production, is the second largest global exporter of textiles and apparels.
But the growth of India’s textile industry has come at an enormous cost. Irresponsible dumping of dyes and chemicals used during textile production has resulted in pollution of rivers, dams and ground water in India, which has had, and continues to have, devastating consequences. Take, for instance, the Noyyal River in Tamil Nadu and the Bandi River in Rajasthan.
Once pristine, beautiful rivers, they are now polluted with waste from industrial factories, which has affected the soil and land around them.
While waste water can be made safer by treating it before dumping, most textile factories neglect to do so, thus introducing phthalates, heavy metals and chlorinated compounds into water sources.
The Noyyal River: A Dumping Ground For Dyes
In Tamil Nadu, South India, one of India’s main hubs for textile production, the Noyyal River, is severely polluted by dyes from dyeing units in the area. Even dams in Tamil Nadu have a not been spared.
Up to the mid-1990s, districts in Tamil Nadu such as Tiruppur had no treatment facilities, thus the more than 6000 factories in the area simply dumped their waste in rivers and dams.
According to Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, over 20,000 hectares around Tiruppur as severely impacted. K Ramaswamy, the university’s vice chancellor has said “bringing this land back to normalcy is very difficult.” He goes on to explain that the soil is no longer conducive to rice growing as “the water is of poor quality and the sludge accumulated in the riverbed has not been removed.”
The continual illegal discharge of effluents is not helping the cause.
Untreated Effluence at the Bandi River
The Bandi River which passes through Pali district in Rajasthan is yet another one of India’s rivers to suffer from textile dye pollution.
Pali has more than 800 textile factories, 600 of which have been categorised as ‘red’ by the Central Pollution Control Board due to their high levels of pollution.
A non-profit organisation located in New Delhi conducted tests on the water from the river and found that chemicals in the Bandi have contaminated wells and interfered with farming activities over a 3km radius.
A key problem facing Pali district is the shortage of plants for treating industrial effluence. The amount of textile mills in the region has grown substantially since the first treatment plant was set up in 1982. Only half the effluence produced by factories is treated in plants, while the other half is simply disposed in the river.
As an added challenge, the existing treatment facilities in Pali were created to treat effluence produced during hand printing of natural fabrics such as cotton. But with the switch to synthetic fibre production whose effluence is more acidic, waste treatment has become more challenging.
Tests conducted on Bandi and Noyyal rivers
Tests confirmed that the water in both rivers is unsafe. One study noted the following:
Chlorides in the rivers have reduced the lifespan and reproductive rate of aquatic organisms.
Oxygen levels are close to zero, further endangering organisms in the water.
Sulphides in the Noyyal are seeping into the surrounding ground water and land in Tiruppur, making the land infertile.
According to Dr Nirmala Sadasivam, an in vitro fertilisation specialist, there’s a notable increase in cases of infertility among people living along the Noyyal River.
There were traces of phenolic compounds in Bandi River, which irritate the skin and cause breathing problems.
In Haridwar ( situated near the Bandi River) , tests conducted on ground water in areas near textile industries showed that the water contained unsafe levels of Lead, Cadmium, Chromium and Iron.
Challenges Hindering Rehabilitation Efforts
Authorities in India have taken steps to shut down of textile factories that pollute. In October 2016, the Pollution Control Board decided to shut down over 600 factories that endanger the inhabitants of Pali, Rajasthan. Is it said that the factories will only be permitted to operate after exhaustive inspections are carried out and once they put up waste treatment plants. In Tiruppur, some factories have adopted the zero- liquid treatment system and this, according to environmentalists and residents, has helped to lower pollution levels.
However, tests show that rehabilitation of the Noyyal has a long was to go as contaminants such as chlorides and sulphides remain dangerously high. More factories need to install zero-liquid disposal systems but since the cost of running the system is so high, most factories are reluctant to make the investment. This will prolong efforts to rehabilitate the river.
There’s also a shortage of officials to regulate pollution. For instance, an official from the Pollution Control Board says that Pali only has 7 officials who are responsible for monitoring factories in the textile industry and other industries. Pali also doesn’t have testing laboratories and sample testing can only be done in Jaipur and Jodhpur.
Lastly, small scale textile millers also affect river clean-up efforts as most of them cannot afford filtration systems for removing toxins contained in waste water. Their sheer numbers and the fact that most of them operate in informal settings at home means that their activities are also largely unregulated by authorities.
To improve the situation, there first needs to be a larger awareness across India – and indeed, across the globe, of the harmful effects of unchecked textile pollution. Following this, perhaps more authorities and regulations can be assigned to regulate the disposal of waste which, in the long run, would immensely reduce the problem.